Roberts Back at Summer Home After Seizure

By Robert Barnes and Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. left the hospital yesterday, smiling and waving, to continue his summer vacation in Maine, but he faces a decision on whether medication will be needed to control the kind of seizure he had Monday afternoon.

People who have had two seizures -- Roberts had another in 1993 -- have a 70 percent chance of experiencing subsequent seizures, said Gregory Krauss, an associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

The fact that Roberts's two seizures occurred 14 years apart, however, suggests that the chief justice is likely to be at risk of only infrequent episodes, the neurologist said.

"If all his tests are normal and he has no progressive lesion, he probably will have infrequent seizures if he is not treated," Krauss said. "Very rare seizures do not handicap your life, except that they make it difficult to drive."

Yesterday morning, Roberts walked briskly from the Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, where he had spent the night, and jumped into the back seat of a sport-utility vehicle for the 20-mile trip to the village of Port Clyde.

"I feel great, thank you," he responded to a shouted question from a reporter in Port Clyde before stepping onto a pontoon boat for the ride to his house on Hupper Island.

Roberts fell from a boat onto a dock on the island Monday afternoon after experiencing what the Supreme Court in a statement called a "benign idiopathic seizure." That means tests did not disclose a medical origin for the event, such as a tumor.

The statement said that Roberts, who at 52 is the youngest member of the court, had "fully recovered from the incident" and that he "underwent a thorough neurological evaluation, which revealed no cause for concern."

Spokeswoman Kathleen Landin Arberg said she did not expect to release further information about the chief justice's health, such as whether he is taking medication or whether further medical care is planned.

Supreme Court justices are among the most private of public officials, and medical information that presidents and members of Congress routinely release is closely held at the court. In Roberts's case, Maine news organizations first reported the event because of the calls for emergency services.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said that the administration knew about the 1993 seizure, which some news organizations had also disclosed, when President Bush nominated Roberts in 2005. Snow said that it was disclosed to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held hearings on Roberts's nomination.

"It obviously was not something that was seen as an issue of overwhelming concern, but it was something that people did take a look at and it is something that he made a point of mentioning up front to those who were doing the vetting," Snow told reporters.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who chaired the hearings, confirmed that the committee was aware of the 1993 incident and said that it did not consider it important enough to ask about during the public hearings. Nominees are asked about their health on a private questionnaire, Senate aides said.

Now that Roberts has had a second seizure, he and his doctors will have to decide whether he should take anticonvulsant medication for the rest of his life or should avoid situations -- such as driving or swimming alone -- in which he could be injured during a seizure.

While older medications had a higher risk of side effects, such as sedation and slowed cognition, those risks have been reduced with newer drugs, said Krauss, who works at the Johns Hopkins Epilepsy Center.

The conventional definition of an epileptic is a patient who has had two or more seizures or is on anti-epileptic medications, but these are definitions used in epidemiological studies and have little bearing on individual treatment, said William H. Theodore, chief of the clinical epilepsy section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health.

Causes are often difficult to find. "A great many things can cause seizures, from sleep deprivation to brain tumors," he said.

Roberts's seizure brought attention to his new summer home -- and a quick response from neighbors. When it occurred, Mark Lipson, a rabbi from Connecticut who also owns a summer home on Hupper Island, jumped onto his pontoon boat to pick up the rescue crew from the mainland, said his father, Sanford Lipson.

"My boy came, got them, loaded them and then brought them back here," said the elder Lipson. He said that Roberts was on a stretcher and that "there wasn't any glazed look in his eyes. He was conscious."

St. George Fire Chief Tim Polky said the ambulance crew that was dispatched Monday was an all-volunteer team that is paid for by donations from residents. It does not have its own boat.

"No matter where we have a call, we will usually hail a fisherman to take us where we want to go," he said.

The crew that arrived consisted of volunteers with basic and intermediate licensing, which he said allows them to insert an IV, monitor a patient's heart or dispense a limited amount of medicine. Out of caution, the team called the Rockland Fire Department for a person with medic-level training.

Staff writers Michael D. Shear in Port Clyde and Michael Abramowitz in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company